Thursday, 19 December 2013

Season's Greetings!

Sorry that we have fallen behind a bit with the posts this year, it has been an incredibly busy year and the blog has paid the price.  New Year's resolution - must do better!  Here's hoping you all have a great festive season.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Great Reckoning

May and June is seabird monitoring time and as such is the busiest time of year for us every year. Our monitoring takes two forms – counting the total number of birds that are attempting to breed on the cliffs, and also monitoring how well they get on with their breeding. As the seabirds are only here for a very short time it is a pretty intense few weeks for us, and we have little time for anything else. For example, this year we spent some 250 hours, or 7 working weeks, out on the cliffs monitoring seabirds in May and June - phew! This is mostly me and Jack, our Seasonal Ranger, with a little help from some volunteers for a couple of days. This year was a big year though, as we were carrying out our quinquennial count of auks (guillemots and razorbills) as well as all the other species.  Our auks are so numerous (numbering some 35,000 birds) that we only have time to count them every 5 years! 

But why spend so much time counting seabirds, I hear you cry? Well, the presence of the large seabird colony is one of the main reasons why St Abb’s Head has been declared a National Nature Reserve, so it makes sense that they are a main area of focus. But also, did you know that some 45% of Europe’s seabirds breed in Scotland? So we have a huge responsibility to make sure we do as much as we can to conserve them. But also, seabirds are very good indicators of the health of the wider marine environment. So, by monitoring numbers and breeding success, we can have an idea of how they are faring, from year to year, but also in the longer term. And if the numbers decrease (as sadly, they have been for the last decade or so) then we can then look more closely as to the reasons behind this, and is there anything we can do to reverse this trend. So, seabird monitoring is arguably the most important thing that us Rangers do at St Abb’s Head.

And the fruits of our labours? Well, we can tell you with confidence that 42,490 seabirds settled down to breed at St Abb’s Head this year. But that this number, although it sounds impressive (and is truly is spectacular when you visit the colony) it is down on last year, and merely half of the number of birds we had breeding here in the late 80s and early 90s. The reasons for this decline? There are many factors involved, but climate change effecting food supplies and leading to extreme weather conditions is thought to be the largest contributor. So when wondering whether you should do something to reduce your carbon footprint – bear in mind the plight of our seabirds.

Anyway, here a breakdown of that figure: Guillemot 32,990 birds (decrease of 0.6% on 2008).
Razorbill 1,820 birds (increase of 7.9% on 2008).
Kittiwake 3,403 pairs (decrease of 21.1% on 2012).
Herring Gull 239 pairs (decrease of 10.1% on 2012).
Fulmar 104 pairs (decrease of 21.8% on 2012).
Shag 94 pairs (decrease of 45% on 2012).

We haven't finished our monitoring yet, still continuing with monitoring the breeding success of shags and kittiwakes, but its not looking like a productive year, sadly.  Watch this space for a report on these results.  Figures are emerging from other seabird colonies too, and it seems we are not alone in having a poor season.  I will report back with more information on that too.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Doing their bit

Once again a group of pupils form Berwick Academy visited us to undertake activities as part of their John Muir Award.  As usual, they helped us with the seemingly never ending task of controlling creeping thistle, or thistle thwacking as it is affectionately known!  They also had a go a trying out the methodology we use for monitoring the wildlfowl on the Mire Loch - not an easy task as, with all the chicks about at the moment, it can get a bit confusing.  Nevertheless, they most certainly seemed to enjoy their time with us - and many thanks to them for all their help!  Here's a few photos of them in action!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Seabird season…

A huge amount of work goes into monitoring the various seabird populations at St Abb’s Head. We monitor the birds mainly by two methods. Firstly by carrying out full colony counts and secondly by studying smaller nest plots for productivity. Annual monitoring has been carried out here for over 35 years, creating a very valuable data set.

Seabirds are a fantastic indicator of the health of the marine environment as they react relatively quickly to changes. By understanding changes in seabird numbers we can get early warning signs of other changes in the marine environment.

Changes in seabird numbers and nest productivity are governed by three main factors; firstly the availability of food, secondly the weather conditions and finally the level of predation at the colony.

Availability of food
If a food supply is poor then generally seabirds suffer a poor breeding season. However seabirds have several clever techniques when food is short; some delay breeding until later in the year when food is more readily available, some refrain from breeding at all and take a year out. Others will travel further to find food and may even change nest site closer to a food supply. Some species will also diversify and switch to more abundant food sources, if they are available. With sea temperatures predicted to continue rising it is likely that we will see continued changes in the amount and types of food available to our seabirds.

It’s important to remember that when food IS readily available then most seabirds will maximise on this with larger, earlier and more successful broods and a greater percentage of chicks will reach fledging stage.


Weather plays a huge role in the life of a seabird, many species such as Auks (Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins) are well adept to dealing with harsh weather, after all these species spend most of the winter out on the open sea only returning here to breed in the summer. It’s the young birds who suffer most at the mercy of the weather.

Rough seas mean that feeding becomes difficult for adult birds and if poor conditions occur while chicks are still young then they quickly become emaciated and starve from a lack of food. Recently hatched birds also lack the insulating and waterproofing feathers of an adult birds plumage and are thus highly susceptible to exposure, relying on the parent for shelter, warmth and protection.

Over the winter many east coast sites have experienced high numbers of dead birds being washed ashore (known as wrecks). From January to March we received many worrying reports of dead birds (mainly Shags and Auks) being washed up on the beaches here. Most were found in an emaciated condition, perhaps reflecting the difficulty feeding during the prolonged periods of rough weather.

It’s worth noting that many seabirds will usually experience high mortality rates during the winter months, with inexperienced first-year birds often being worst hit. During the first few months of this year the east coast experienced a long period of on-shore wind and this brought any dead birds ashore. These birds will usually decompose at sea so perhaps we are being made more aware this year.

From monitoring it is already clear that 2013 is shaping up to be a poor year for many species. Unfortunately it looks like this year will be an example of how poor weather, particularly during early summer can spell big problems for many species. Only when our full counts and productivity figures have been analysed will be know for sure how species have coped.

Levels of predation
Ever wondered why seabirds choose inaccessible ledges, remote islands and sea stacks as nest sites? The answer is down to the lack of predators at these inaccessible sites. Predators can include animals such as Rat, Fox, Stoat, Weasel as well as other birds. An impressive spectacle at St Abb's Head is when young guillemots begin to jump from the safety of the cliffs to the ocean below. Hungry Herring Gulls lay in wait and pick off ‘jumplings’ not quick enough or accurate enough to make it to safety.

Recently a number of island locations have undertaken rat eradication projects to protect breeding seabirds. Since introduced Brown Rats were eradicated from the Island of Canna the populations of Manx Shearwater have began to return and other seabirds are also benefiting. A huge operation is also currently underway in South Georgia.



With sea temperatures predicted to continue rising and scientists predicting a more erratic weather pattern, it’s thought that the marine environment is likely to undergo some dramatic changes in the not too distant future. With our continued monitoring we will be keeping a careful watch on how our seabirds react to these changes.
With peak seabird breeding season here it’s a great time to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a busy seabird colony. Many birds are now on eggs and others are busy displaying, mating and nest building.

Park at the visitor centre and enjoy a walk around the dramatic coastal scenery of the headland and look out for our rangers carrying out monitoring, we are happy to answer questions but please don’t disturb us mid count... 12,067…12,068… “excuse me, where are the puffins?”... doh’


Monday, 15 April 2013

Spring into action...

Jack here; having arrived back a couple of weeks ago I thought I would keep you all updated on what’s about on the reserve at the moment.

It’s finally beginning to feel a little bit like spring here today. It’s been a tough winter for many of our seabird species, birds such as Guillemots and Razorbills spend the entire winter out on the open sea. Imagine that... 7 months on the open sea! They arrive back in early spring to breed. Our Auks (Guillemots, Razorbills and one or two Puffins) will come and go at this time of year, checking out old nest sites and enjoying the novelty of being on dry land.

The affect of unseasonal weather has meant that many of our seabirds have been slow getting started. Guillemots and Razorbills have just about become a permanent feature on our cliffs and Shags have begun building some impressive nests. The cliffs are a noisy place, with bird’s pair bonding and disputing territories. Keep a look out for the first eggs. Last year the first Guillemots were seen on eggs on the 14th April.

During the spring many migrant birds pass through the reserve on their journey north to breeding grounds. St. Abb’s Head provides the perfect stop-off point as it is a prominent headland. This year many of our migrant birds have been later than usual due to the strong north east wind (who wants to fly into that). In the last week we have been graced by Chiffchaff, Wheatear and White Wagtail and this morning provided the first records of Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Swallow.

A few signs of spring on the reserve...

Peacock Butterfly (first of the year)

Mute swan courtship display
Hare (keep an eye out for boxing)

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Spring Migrants?

So, spring may not have sprung yet as far as the wildlife is concerned - not a sign of a wheatear, a sand martin or a ring ouzel on the Reserve yet - but we have had a couple of human migrants. On Good Friday Jack Ibbotson  returned  to St Abbs for his second year as Seasonal Ranger (the arrival of the Seasonal always signals spring in my mind), and then Easter Monday was our new Marine Ranger, Laura Smith's, first day at work.

Regulars will remember Jack (pictured top left, looking decidedly camp!)  - a very keen birder and all round general good egg (aha ha!).  Jack left us last September, went off to spend a couple of months working with the Trust's Ranger Team on Arran and then spent the rest of the winter gadding about birdwatching and generally enjoying his freedom.  But he seems to be pleased to be back in the saddle at St Abbs again!

Laura (pictured bottom left, looking rather demure) has migrated south from Spey Bay where she has been working for the last 7 years working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society.  Laura brings with her a wealth of experience of working with volunteers and of environmental interpretation, including storytelling skills, which will be invaluable in her new job. We are very pleased to welcome her to our small, but perfectly formed, team!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Taking stock...

The winter months are a time for taking stock, and, amongst other things, examining data gathered during the previous field season.  Surveying and monitoring is an incredibly important part of the Trust's nature conservation work.  Because you need to know what you have got, and how what you've got changes over the years, in order for you to know whether you are managing an area correctly.

At  St Abb's Head we carry out annual monitoring of various types of wildlife, but we concentrate mostly on our seabirds and our butterflies.  The data that we have gathered over the years has helped guide our management of St Abb's Head National Nature Reserve, but has also been fed into national databases to help inform wider scale conservation work.

On top of this annual monitoring, we also carry out less frequent monitoring.  Last summer our Nature Conservation Adviser, Lindsay Mackinlay undertook some monitoring of our grasslands (see blog entry for last October) and we also commissioned a survey of the entomological (insect) interests of our grasslands too.  This work all forms part of our Grassland Management Plan for St Abb's Head.

Well, I have just finished reading the report on the Diptera, or True Flies, to be found at at St Abb's Head.  The wet and windy weather that we had so much of last summer was not ideal for surveying insects, but even so, the study still turned up some interesting results.  It found one species rare in Scotland, and several that are uncommon in Scotland, including Cheilosia vernalis (pictured top), which was found by the Mire Loch.  It makes you wonder what they could have found had the weather been more conducive!

And you may be thinking, who cares about flies, they're just annoying!  But as we know, every single organism in an ecosystem has a vital role to play, and if you take out one link in the web of life, everything could come tumbling down, so its vitally important that we know as much as possible about all the different types of wildlife on the reserve.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Face to Face...

By the way - if you want to keep up with what's going on at St Abb's Head on a more regular basis then please check us out on Facebook

Time flies!

So, today is 1st March, but where did February go?  Sorry that things have been a little quiet on the blog front over the last few weeks, the reason being that I have been somewhat busy with so much other stuff that there just hasn't been time.  So what has been going on then I hear you cry!

Well, apart from the seemingly never ending stream of office work that needs to be done - report writing, work planning, updating our Safe Systems of Work, that sort of thing - I have also been managing a big project to upgrade the visitor facilities and footpaths around the property.  It has taken some time, and has been a bit of a battle with the weather, but we got there in the end.  So we now have a completely resurfaced car park (much easier for folk of all abilities to walk on), with demarcated bays (including two reserved for disabled visitors) and a path to the Nature Centre that is of a gradient suitable for wheelchairs (pictured left).  This should make life a whole lot easier for our less able visitors, and ties in nicely with our All Ability Trail which enables visitors in wheelchairs or with baby buggies to get to the viewpoint overlooking Starney Bay. We also have improved signage and a leaflet dispensing machine so that people can get a copy of the property leaflet (and map) even when the Nature Centre is closed.  And we have installed bike racks so that folk who are using a more sustainable form of transport can explore the reserve without fearing that their transport may not be there when they get back!

On top of all this we have also had work done on about 650 m of the coast path, primarily around the Starney Bay area (pictured right) where is the path was getting very gullied and muddy, and generally uncomfortable to walk on.  And also a good deal of path work has been carried out around the Mire Loch which has been a bit of a quagmire with the incredibly wet weather that we have "enjoyed" this year.

So, as I say, a lot of work, but the results have been great and should really improve visitor access to the Reserve.  The work has been 50% funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) because St Abb's Head is a Spotlight National Nature Reserve (NNR).  The designation as a NNR means that the area is nationally important for wildlife (one of only 50 or so in Scotland) and the term "Spotlight" indicates that SNH see St Abb's Head as one of the creme de la creme as far as visitor access and enjoyment is concerned.

And if all this wasn't enough to keep me occupied, I also has to go through the complicated process of recruiting a new member of staff as Georgia, our Marine Ranger, is moving on to pastures new, or more accurately, she is running away to sea!  She will working as crew on a dive boat that travels all around Scottish waters and even across to Norway on occasions.  Georgia will be leaving us at the end of this month, so you will need to get in quick if you want to say your goodbyes. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Happy New Year!

The winter solstice has passed and the days seem to be getting a longer already, which is always a bonus in January when spring seems still to be very far away.  But I spotted another herald of warmer times yesterday - a little splash of colour in the form of a small clump of winter aconites flowering in the car park.  Maybe not wild native plants (they are survivors from the old farmhouse garden), but beautiful never the less.